Today’s the last day and the last feast of the Christmas season – the Baptism of the Lord.
At Christmas, the Son of God eternally begotten of the Father is born in time of Mary his mother.
At Epiphany, the Church is born in the person of the Magi.
Today, each of us is reminded of our own rebirth by water and the Holy Spirit.
At the end of the Easter season, we have the feast of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit comes down in wind and fire. And at the end of the Christmas season, we have the feast of Christ’s Baptism, when the Holy Spirit comes down on him in bodily shape, like a dove.
All four of the Gospels, each in its own way, mention that Jesus was baptised by John.
John’s baptism wasn’t our baptism. It wasn’t a sacrament, though it was a step towards it. It was an outward sign of repentance. Centuries before the people of Israel had gone through the River Jordan to enter into their inheritance, the Promised Land. By going back to the Jordan, they were expressing a desire to begin again, to be the people God wanted them to be.
And Jesus joins them. He wasn’t a sinner; he’s the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. But he identifies himself with his sinful people. And he chooses a highly symbolic way of doing so. None of the Gospels directly mention this physical detail, but he must have gone down into the water. Off the bank into the river, and if it was high enough right under the water. He had already “come down from heaven”, as the Creed says: not meaning a journey in space, but his becoming a human being. Now he goes still further down: into the muddy stream of sinful human history. And as we know, he was humbler yet, even to death on a cross, even to descent into the realm of the dead. Down, down, down he goes. And the Holy Spirit “descends” on him today, we hear. The Son and the Spirit, the two hands of the Father, go down together, down to us, down to all the lowest points – so that the Father can retrieve us, scoop us up, draw us back into his embrace.
This is the disconcerting revelation of a phil-anthropic (human-loving)God.
And this movement still goes on. By faith, baptism, sanctifying grace, Jesus is born and appears and comes down in each of us. He comes down to our level. He lives his life with each and all of us. The Fathers of the Church love to say that today Christ purified, consecrated water, and so inaugurated the sacrament of baptism. We can enlarge that a little. Human history is the water. Our own lives are the water. They flow, they pass. Sometimes our water is muddy, sometimes turbulent. Sometimes it runs low, a mere trickle, sometimes, like the river at Stonehaven, it overflows and spreads mud and mess everywhere. But down into this water comes the Spirit-bearing Christ. He purifies it, consecrates it. He enters its flow. He makes it a source of life for others. He changes it into a river of life that will flow, not like the Jordan, into the dead end of the Dead Sea, but into the ocean of God’s enthralling, all-encompassing, life-giving infinity.
We live our lives. We have our family life and our work and things to do. We marry or we don’t or we did once. We have children or we don’t. We’re in good health or we’re not. But here’s the wonder: into all of this Christ comes. He doesn’t take it away. He purifies it. He pours into it faith, hope and love. He gives broadens and deepens our life. He fills the ordinary daily things with meaning and grace and prayer. After his baptism, Jesus is praying, says St Luke. And so in us. The heavens are opened: the relationship with God clouded over since the sin of Adam is now possible again. Everything good we do, not just the holy things but each and every thing, can be worship of God. The Holy Spirit comes down, and the Father speaks: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you.’ Every day the Father says that to each of us.
All this is the grace of Baptism.
Christmas, Epiphany, the Baptism of the Lord. These are wonderful feasts. ‘God’s grace has been revealed, says St Paul, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race.’ And isn’t it a nice touch that the Church’s year begins just a little before the Civil year? Before the New Year is born, Christ is born, and when it has just been born, we’re reminded that we have been re-born: ‘justified by grace.’ So it’s God who leads, God who starts the sentence, God who tells the story, not the world. ‘Console, my people, console them, says your God. Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and call to her that her time of service is ended, that her sin is atoned for… Here is the Lord coming with power…He is like a shepherd leading his flock.’ He goes first. If we’ve lived this Advent and Christmas well, if we’ve renewed our sorrow for our sins and received the gift of forgiveness once again, if we’ve felt our faith revived, what a good position we’re in to begin another year. We’ve stolen a march on the Evil One. The life-giving water of Christ is already flowing in our lives.
Who knows what lies ahead of us this year? But what we do know is that God is there already. God is with us. Christ is in us. The Holy Spirit is over us. And the motherly prayers of Mary are around us.